Sunday, August 10, 2014

Freaks, Geeks, Outcasts, Cultural Appropriation, and Boys Like Me

Cultural appropriation is a serious issue. Colonizing cultures have scoured the world to pick up choice pieces of culture that don't belong to them to exploit for personal pleasure and profit. I think of this often when I see herds of women and men clad in pricey yoga pants from Lululemon marching down Harvard Square to pay for a work out that makes them feel enlightened--a workout that is devoid from any connection to the actual philosophies that are at the root of yoga.

There have been numerous thoughtful responses to an OpEd piece about gay men appropriating black women's culture written by Sierra Mannie called "Dear White Gays." You can find two of the responses that I've most respected here and here.

I hadn't had anything to add to the dialogue that other people hadn't already said. Then this morning I came across Chris Koo's cover of Beyoncé's Crazy in Love and got to thinking what it might like to be a young person who violates gender norms in a community where the are little (if any) outlets for the safe expression of self.

Do you think Koo is appropriating black women's culture like Sierra Mannie might think?

In our rush to play the Oppression Olympics and decide who should win the title of Queen for a Day (see also), we forget about the actual pain that actual people are facing all around the world.

I think of these young people taking on the mannerisms of Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj or Katy Perry or Lady Gaga or whomever else is the pop icon of the day. We forget about the freaks, geeks, outcasts, and gender queer folks around the world who just can't (or won't) fit in with cultural expectations. We forget that these young folks who violate gender normed behavior find connection, solace, hope, and liberation in images of empowered people in popular culture.

I think of my own experience as a kid desperately wanting to have red hair like Annie Lennox and writing a paper about Boy George. I was trying to find people who were like me, so I could be like them, so I could fit in and be liked by others.

I wrote that paper about Boy George for a grade school music class. My teacher was concerned I might be like Boy George and he didn't like that. He held an emergency conference with my parents (who were, by the way, very uninterested in their nonsense). The music teacher and my sixth grade teacher suggested my parents have me join the Boy Scouts so I could be like the other boys. My teachers were worried that if I wasn't like the other boys,  I wouldn't be liked, so I should be someone other than who I was to be properly likable.

The message was clear. In the eyes of my teachers, there was something terribly wrong with me.

We forget young people who don't fit in have few (if any) supportive role models. These freaks, geeks, and outcasts face enormous pressure to be someone other than who they are in order to be acceptable human beings. No one to support them. No one like them. No one to be like. No one to be liked by. No one to celebrate the value and dignity of their experience.

No one, that is, except the role models they can find in popular icons.

I think of why my friend said in his blog Meanhood:

But there are some white gays who live in rural areas who are ostracized by everyone in their community, they have no friends because they are too femme, and unlike college kids and me, they cannot “pass,” they are hated, so they make friends with other lonely souls, other black people, women who are themselves shunned in that culture, and they blend together. If they don’t know black people then they cling to starlets, pop stars, yes Beyonce, independent women who flaunt a sexuality that they wish they could flaunt themselves.

No doubt Mannie was expressing the pain she experiences in her life. That's important to recognize, value, and take collective community action to alleviate. What Mannie missed was a recognition of the pain that other people face. It's what most of us miss.

In our single-minded obsession with our own experience, we forget to look outside and recognize the pain other people experience.

We won't create a better world when we busy ourselves with the game of who is right. Who has more pain? Which pain is more important? It's a game where no one wins and everyone loses.

We need to find a new way of being were we are able value our own experiences as well as imagine and respect the experience of the other.

Mannie failed at this. Many of us do.


  1. Brilliant, Jason!
    Thank you.
    Let this piece be read widely.
    I plan to share it right now.

  2. Nice to read your voice again. Sounds like you have been pondering. I think being a freak, geek... is beyond gender expression or sexual partner choices. The road of not fitting into the expectations of others goes beyond school into adulthood. It is odd that being a celebrity appears to give a bit more leeway to being an individual.